The Long Weekend

This 300-word short story is, well a very short story! It is my July instalment for the 12 Short Stories in 12 Months website. For the genre, I chose Adult Fiction. I really enjoyed the challenge of word economy, and experimenting with a genre that is not my usual ‘go-to’.

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Image by Pixabay

From where I am lying I can see the Alsatian’s antenna-like ears navigate the periphery of the high bed. I smell the damp earthiness of his fur. He licks something in the direction of Jim’s body. I don’t want to look.

I can’t talk to the dog. I’m parched and voiceless from shouting. This is my second day without water.

The back door is slamming from the wind that has picked up in the valley. Normally the repetitive sound would annoy me, put me on edge. But not now. I’m too exhausted. And cold.

“Hallooo. Anyone home?” A woman’s voice. Foreign.

The dog starts barking.

“Oh my God!”

She is standing at the bedroom door. I’d forgotten about my nakedness. Her eyes scan my body. I remember suddenly that it’s Martha the cleaner. Jim had mentioned that she would come during my stay.

“What happened? Where is Mister Jim?”

I point with my head to the floor on the other side of the bed, the handcuffs preventing me from any other movement.

Martha walks slowly round, sees the still body on the carpet. Then screams.

*

A young policeman chewing gum picks the lock of the handcuffs above my head. He is close to my face, looking away from me. His cigarette smell makes me want to retch, I am so hungry. I sit up on the bed, shaking, rubbing my wrists where the handcuffs were.

I think of my pure white cat, Angel, back at my apartment in the city, as I am led to the awaiting vehicle. She’s purring, curled up in my lap at the bay window, both of us bathed in Spring sunlight.

 

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Blue Mountains Inferno

This short story is my June instalment for the 12 Short Stories Challenge website. I dedicate it to the residents of the Lower Blue Mountains community in New South Wales, Australia, who were affected by the devastating bushfires of October 2013.

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Five years ago on Wednesday 17th October 2013 the inhabitants of the Lower Blue Mountains in New South Wales where I grew up woke up to what they thought would be a normal day. By nightfall, 200 residential properties were destroyed by fire, and chaos prevailed in this otherwise family friendly and quiet part of the Blue Mountains district. Within 24 hours, 500 insurance claims had been lodged.

Familiar locations of my childhood, Winmalee and Springwood, were brandished on the front pages of Sydney’s newspapers in the ensuing weeks. Many inhabitants of New South Wales or even Australia had not heard of these names until tragedy struck at such short notice that October.

Sergio Rosato (‘Serge’), Principal of St Thomas’s, my former primary school in the suburb of Winmalee, recalls children and parents streaming into the playground that morning, laughing, greeting each other. Teachers were busily preparing for the day ahead, as usual.

It was a dry, warm and windy day. Smoke hung in the air from a fire burning at Lithgow a 100 kilometres away, over the other side of the Blue Mountains. Due to the high wind and smoke, the children were told to stay indoors for their lunch break.

During lunch, a colleague from St Columba’s, the adjacent high school, rang to inquire if Serge had been outside in the last few minutes. In a calm voice, he advised Serge that from his school bell tower he could see the flames moving at a rapid rate towards St Thomas’s.

Serge walked outside while still talking on the phone and was confronted by a total change of scenery from what he had witnessed a few minutes earlier.

His colleague said: ‘mate, you’ve got a really big problem’.

Serge then consulted with the Assistant Principal and instructed the staff to bring the 550 children to the school hall. He noticed that some of the students were visibly anxious by then, but most of them remained calm, fixing their concentration on the teachers’ composure.

He then called emergency services requesting advice and assistance for a safe evacuation of the school. By this time, flames could be seen across the road from the school hall and the smoke was thickening.

Serge said: ‘ then a lone police car emerged from the haze like an apparition’. The police officer advised that they should head north towards the local shopping centre, 2 ½ kilometres away. Serge believed it was a miracle that the students had trod the same route just two weeks prior, for their school walkathon. Their familiarity would expedite the evacuation.

This time however, the teachers and children walked in silence, accompanied by scenes of chaos: helicopters flying overhead, emergency service sirens, plumes of dense smoke, and abandoned vehicles flanked on either side of the road. While walking them to safety, Serge prepared himself for the possibility of loss of life.

Serge lost his house in the fires that day. He didn’t admit to this fact until the last of the children were safely delivered to their parents nearly seven hours later.

Serge’s actions attracted national attention. His quick thinking and bravery were reported in capital city newspapers. He also became the recipient of the 2014 Blue Mountains Citizen of the Year Award.

Sydney based international children’s entertainers The Wiggles performed a special benefit concert a month after the fire in the school hall to lift the school’s spirits – the same hall the children started their evacuation trek from. ‘Blue Wiggle’ Anthony was told by his sister, Maria – who lives in the locality – that she loves to hear Serge play the guitar at mass.

The Wiggles also presented him with a new Maton acoustic guitar at the concert. His was burnt in the fire along with his house.

Serge was inundated with requests to be interviewed from the wider community and the media after his unexpected fame. He accepted my offer based on the fact that he knew my father, a local GP, when he was alive, and admired and respected him for his involvement in the Lower Blue Mountains community.

There have been tragic stories of loss: people anxiously trying to get back down their street to rescue their beloved family pet. Only to be cut off by the police due to the risks. Their own neighbourhoods had become forbidden places.

One couple had only moved into their home in Winmalee on the day of the fires. Then it burned to the ground that same afternoon. The house next door to them was untouched.

The following April, Serge was invited to meet the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge when they paid an official visit to the area, along with a few other locals who had shown great courage and selflessness during this traumatic time.

I asked Serge if his experience on that fateful day in October changed him:

The event has had a profound effect on my life. It has inspired me to be more attentive to others, to be a better listener and to appreciate the goodness and compassion that is embodied in people. I have witnessed this first hand and it has left an indelible mark on me.’

∞∞∞

Carolyn Beazley runs the Youth Hostel Association (YHA) at Hawkesbury Heights near Winmalee. She and her husband live close by. She visited her friend Jo (not her real name) in the local suburb of Yellow Rock on the morning of the 17th October accompanied by her three-year-old granddaughter.

When she returned home she heard on the radio that there was a fire in Springwood, behind the golf course. Jo heard the same news bulletin and rang to ask if Carolyn knew where the smoke was coming from, that she could see from her place. Carolyn reassured her that it was in Springwood, not anywhere near her, but advised her to pack up her dog and the neighbour’s dog and come out to her place.

Jo decided to stay put.

For the next half hour Carolyn’s phone didn’t stop ringing. Her daughter in Queensland heard that parts of Springwood were being evacuated, including her husband’s extended family. By this time the schools had been evacuated and Hawkesbury Road was closed to traffic coming from Springwood. Carolyn, being on the other side of the road closure, volunteered to pick up her daughter-in-law’s two children who went to Winmalee High School and St Thomas’s Primary School. She stopped (still with the three-year-old granddaughter in tow) at the shopping centre where little Benjamin (6) had been evacuated to, as a member of Serge’s party. She could see that he was visibly distraught. But before she got inside the building Jo rang again, this time to say she was surrounded by fire.

Through tears I tried to keep her calm and think sensibly. I said ‘You have to stay now. Stop, fill up your bath and any buckets, wet towels and take curtains down, block draughts under doors and windows.’

By then there was no water in the taps. Just a dribble.

Don’t panic, just leave the taps turned on, it (the water) will come.’

Jo’s phone was going flat, as was mine. Power had been cut by this stage so we couldn’t recharge our phones. Jo saved her phone’s battery in case she needed to call anyone. She was unable to speak with her husband as he was working away from home that day and not in mobile phone range. She told me she felt very scared and vulnerable.

I sat on the side of Hawkesbury Road and cried. I wasn’t sure if this was the last time I would ever hear from my friend’.

Then Carolyn managed to pull herself together and reminded herself: ‘You have children to support now’. She went inside the shopping centre to collect Benjamin.

They then picked up his 12-year-old sister from Winmalee High School. Carolyn said she showed ‘great maturity’ comforting her little brother, ringing her parents herself to say that they were safe.

When Carolyn got home with the three children Jo rang again and their conversation was a lot more controlled.

She thought her neighbours’ house was on fire. The shed in her backyard was alight and she could see flames coming towards her house, then out of the blue a helicopter came and dumped water on the shed and garden, and the fire was quelled. We cried. Jo’s neighbour, who is a policeman, arrived. I think we both felt a little safer then, knowing that he was there. Don’t know why, it just meant he was stuck in there too now”.

The phone kept ringing all afternoon and they didn’t get round to eating until 8pm.

Cold baked beans and bread never tasted so good’. There was still no power by then.

Carolyn’s daughter-in-law couldn’t get through to pick up her three-year-old until the next morning. And her father-in-law phoned the following day to see if she was still coming round to clean his house as usual, being Thursday, as if nothing had ever happened. She witnessed surreal scenes along Hawkesbury Road on the drive there – houses burnt down, the air thick with smoke and ash and silence.

I take my hat off to Jo for surviving that twenty four-plus hours, basically on her own. We still didn’t see each other for nearly a week, as the road remained blocked for several days, and then was only open to residents. We had one huge hug and again, many tears, but they were happy ones.

There was probably not a person in the mountains who didn’t know someone who lost their home or were affected by the fire in some way or another. It was more emotionally draining this time for me compared to the ‘94 fires, which also threatened our property here at Hawkesbury Heights. Not sure why that is, maybe because I am older’.

As there were no bookings in the YHA that week, Carolyn offered free accommodation to anyone who needed it. Two young women ended up staying for a few days until their aunt was able to collect them.

Five years on and the vivid memory of that October is still not far from the minds of the residents of the Lower Blue Mountains. They are bracing themselves for another bushfire season, now just four months away.

Serge has a new house and he has insured his new guitar (along with the house). Carolyn and Jo still catch up regularly and remain firm friends.

Short Story: Oscar

Here is my May instalment for the 12 Short Stories Challenge website. Word count this month is 1200 words and the prompt is ‘distinctive markings’. This story was inspired in part by the recent publication of the book The Tattooist of Auschwitz by New Zealand author Heather Morris.

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Each morning before school, Max likes to hold Oscar round his rib cage and feel his heart beating against his hand. He feeds him his breakfast of carrots and lettuce leaves before putting his school uniform on, having learned that rabbits are pooing machines.

Max also likes to nuzzle up to Oscar’s face, touch his wet nose, and smell his straw-like scent, despite his mother Janet’s protest: ‘careful, he might bite if you get too close.’ Rolling his eyes, Max counts on his fingers how many months it’s now been since Oscar joined the family: on Max’s tenth Birthday eight months ago. And Oscar hasn’t bitten him yet.

When he’s at school Max often wonders what Oscar is doing back at home in his hutch in the laundry. Does he think of anything? Does he get bored? Has Mum remembered to check in on him? Fortunately Janet works from home, so Oscar doesn’t get lonely.

After school Max races home to let Oscar out for his exercise. At the same time, he talks to him about his day. He’s always amazed at how little he looks on the lawn, compared to when he is in his hutch in the laundry, which takes up almost the entire floor. There is just enough space left for access to the sink and washing machine.

Tuesday 13 June is Pet Day at school. Max has been looking forward to it for a while. He has never had a pet before Oscar. Janet refused to get one for him until he was old enough to look after it. ‘I’ve got too much to do already with my business, keeping an eye on Grandpa, and your Dad being away so much.’

Of course, Max didn’t really understand what was involved with caring for a pet until Oscar came home. He didn’t want a dog as he would have to walk it. And he was allergic to cats. Cleaning out the cage and ensuring there’s enough fresh hay, food and water is certainly enough responsibility for this 10-year-old kid who would rather be kicking a ball around the backyard or playing on his PlayStation.

Oscar has proven to be good company and a great sounding board for Max’s problems at school. Lately Max has been sharing his interest in the new girl in the class, Sophie. She is from Krakow in Poland. Mrs. Bainbridge the teacher put her next to him so that he could help her settle in.

Max looks up Google maps to see where Krakow is located when he gets home on Sophie’s first day. He thinks she is really pretty, but she doesn’t say much.

By the end of Sophie’s first week at school, Max is starting to worry about her being alone in the playground at lunchtime. He seeks counsel from Oscar, who twitches in reply.

‘Yep, you’re right. I need to do this.’

On the following Monday, Max tells his friends: ‘I’m not playing handball today, I’m going to go and talk to Sophie about Poland.’

‘Whatever. Go and see your girlfriend then,’ says Hamish with a smirk.

‘Don’t be silly. It’s not like that.’ The boys walk off; Max’s response goes unheard.

Sophie is studying her phone when Max approaches. When he is close she looks up. He notices that she has beautiful long lashes, just like Oscar. And almost the same colour brown eyes.

She moves along the bench a bit to make room.

Max is speechless all of a sudden, which is not like him. Usually he has a lot to say, according to his teacher. He then remembers his Dad commenting once that most people like to talk about pets.

‘I’ve got a rabbit called Oscar. He is grey all over except for his black ears, and a patch of white on his nose. I picked him as he kept looking at me from his big brown eyes. I could hear him saying: take me home.’

Sophie laughs. ‘Rabbits don’t talk. I have a cat.’

‘Oh. I’m allergic to cats.’

They both look at the ground in silence. Max can hear the familiar voices of his friends yelling to each other at the handball court. They seem far away.

He shuffles his feet. Their silence is broken by the school bell. They both get up.

Sophie looks up at him sheepishly. ‘I would really like to meet your rabbit one day.’

Max is lost for words again. Then finally announces as they walk into the classroom:

‘I’m bringing Oscar for Pet Day on Friday. You can meet him then. Are you bringing your cat?’

‘No. She’s still in quarantine for another week.’ There is sadness in her voice.

‘Oh. You must miss her. What is her name?’

‘Aniol. In English that means Angel. She is white all over, like an angel. And has blue eyes. One is darker than the other.’

‘Oh.’ Max is annoyed at himself for saying oh so much.

Pet Day goes fairly smoothly, though Max is worried that so many people want to hold Oscar. He’s not sure that his rabbit can cope with all the attention. He poos quite a few pellets when Mrs. Davis from the canteen holds him. Max thinks it’s her loud booming voice.

When it’s his turn to talk about caring for a rabbit he finds himself blushing. Sophie is sitting in the front row of the auditorium staring straight at him, not unlike Oscar when they first met, he realises later at the debrief on the back lawn at home.

*

On 1st July it is Grandparents’ Day. That morning Max’s dad Patrick comments: ‘there are so many activities on the school calendar it’s hard to keep up. Do you get any work done?’ He is grinning as he says it.

Max’s Grandpa is too frail to come to school; he’s getting over the ‘flu. Sophie’s mum brings Sophie’s grandfather in. He shows Max his markings from Auschwitz. He was 13 when they tattoed him with a number. He is now 87. The tattoo is very faded. Max has to look close. He can just make out the sequence: 98288. The old man’s skin is very wrinkled. He has a beautiful smile that makes Max want to smile back. Sophie says ‘his name is Jakub and he doesn’t speak much English. He came to Australia with us to live. I am named after his sister Sofia who died in the death camp when she was 15.’

As Max looks into this man’s rheumy eyes holding his granddaughter’s hand, he tries to imagine the horror he has seen when he was a few years older than him. He has been looking up Auschwitz and death camps on the internet, ever since Sophie mentioned the connection at lunchtime one day.

Max is lost for words again. Sophie squeezes his hand with her free one. ‘It’s ok.’

She kisses her grandpa on the forehead. ‘My mother says you can come over on the weekend to meet my cat. We will both remind you not to get too close.’

‘Oh’ is all he can muster for now.

 

Starting a Diary

The word count for the 12 Short Stories Writing Challenge this month was 750 words; the story prompt: buy or sell. This version below has undergone a further review with the help of my writing group at the NSW Writers’ Centre, who advised me to ditch the divorce that formed part of the original story. The general consensus was that dealing with an empty nest was a big enough focal point for such a limited word count.

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You are sitting alone in a local cafe smiling at this fact. Doing things differently from now on matters; you’re keeping a diary to mark the changes. For your first entry this morning you wrote: Ate breakfast on the back step watching the birds, instead of at the kitchen bench with the radio on. Now you can add: went to the cafe by myself.

Natalie the therapist will be happy with your efforts. She’s helping you get over the Empty Nest Syndrome as she calls it, now that Joe has finally moved out. He’d been talking about it for ages, but nothing prepared you for the gut-wrench that replaced him two weeks ago.

His messy habits are already softened by memory – the washing basket of dirty clothes in the laundry, the freezer left ajar overnight, lending a frosted look to its contents, fossils caught in time.

But it’s the noise you miss the most: his rap music in the bathroom, laughter on the phone, slamming of doors behind him whenever he left the house.

Mornings have been the most difficult. At nighttime there is the routine of preparing dinner, watching TV, a glass of wine punctuating order. Joe was hardly around then anyway, often sleeping at his girlfriend Teesh’s for days, turning up when he ran out of clean clothes.

Lost in the cafe’s newspaper, there is a tap on your shoulder. You jump up, spilling your coffee onto the Properties for Sale section. A conversation had just been playing out inside your head: sell in the Spring then buy in the Winter when prices flatline? Downsizing has been occupying your mind.

‘So sorry! I didn’t mean to alarm you. I saw the upturned nose and I thought to myself: it’s you! Here, let me help.’

As you both dab the spreading puddle with paper napkins you get a sideways look at your interloper. He is dressed well – Ralph Lauren polo, Diesel jeans. And he smells nice, Cinnamon-ey.

Self consciously you touch the ‘upturned’ end of your nose. Then, standing up straight, face your inquisitor, searching his face for some recognisable feature, feeling your face flush.

‘Umm, do I know you?’

‘You don’t remember me? We met at your friend’s place a few times in the school holidays way back when. I’m her cousin.’

‘Really? You mean Jessica’s?’

You take a step back to get a better view of him, squinting a little, as if the reduced vision will resurrect your memory.

‘That’s right. I can see you are not convinced. How about if I show you the scar on my wrist from that time I fell, when we were playing tag.’

He holds out his arm for your inspection, palm up.

‘There, see? There is a lump, where the screw is that put me back together. It was a nasty fall. I’m the regular Tin Man, you know the character from The Wizard of Oz?’

You both laugh.

‘Let me get you another coffee.’

‘Ok. I’m just going to the bathroom to sponge my shirt. Cappuccino would be great.’

In the restroom, you inspect yourself in the mirror. You go to grab your lipstick then realise in your haste that you left your bumbag behind.

You’re still not convinced you know this guy, but he seems nice enough. Genuine. It was so long ago and you met a lot of people at Jessica’s place when you were younger. She came from a big family. You were attracted to all the chaos. Going home to your cat, your sister and parents always seemed a come-down afterwards.

You giggle, thinking you can add had coffee with a stranger to your diary.

Back in the cafe, he is nowhere to be seen. You surmise that he’s in the men’s. Pretending to read the paper for a few minutes, you then decide to check with the barista.

‘Gus, did you see the guy who was talking to me? You know, in the blue polo?’

‘Yes. He walked out, a little while ago now. ‘

‘What?’

‘That’s right.’

You return to your table, frantically start searching for your bag.

Then exclaim ‘He took my things.’

‘I’m so sorry. That’s the second one on the strip this week. We’ll call the police.’

You slump into a chair and make a mental note for the diary: got robbed by nice looking asshole.

 

Celebrations

Below is my instalment for  March on the 12 Short Stories website. The prompt this month was a celebration and the word count 2500 words. The setting I chose for this story was inspired by a number of social gatherings I attended early in the New Year at the height of the Australian Summer. The searing temperatures are thankfully behind us now as we enjoy the deliciousness of Autumn/Fall weather and the feeling of promise it always brings…

The younger nephews and nieces hit balloons at each other, pale pink and powder blue. It’s 47C outside. The pool on the property is out of bounds today – it’s too far to walk in the heat. So everyone is staying in with the air con on, the thick curtains drawn.

I peep out the window between a slit in the cream coloured fabric. The Liquidamber trees look anorexic in the shimmering haze. It’s brother Gus’s birthday and the family has gathered to celebrate. Though there is a palpable weariness in the room – post-Christmas exhaustion, the weather. Polite conversation is going to be more difficult than usual.

Daisy and I don’t stop for coffee on the long drive up from the city. We both agree it’s too hot even for coffee.

I stand at the perimeter of people, surveying the chaos. The balloons lend a sense of occasion, as does the tiered display of cupcakes in the middle of the main table. Someone’s put the TV on mute; a football game is playing on the screen.

We all bring too many BBQ chickens, knowing that our host, younger brother Angus can feed his big brood of children with the leftovers later, when we are safely back at home on the couch with Netflix and a chilled glass of wine.

Angus says: ‘I’m looking forward to going back to work tomorrow.’

He’s been house dad to his army of kids for two weeks now. I smile at his honesty and pipe ‘I bet you are!’

I look around at the incongruous crowd, tied together by blood. There’s the sister who will escape the people and the conversation to go outside for a cigarette, even in this heat. Someone is missing, but I can’t recall their name. A headache begins to take hold; I try to ignore it but it interferes with my thoughts.

The elder nieces and nephews, teenagers and 20something-year-olds, have claimed their own table and are busy sharing their stories: last night’s activities, social media posts on phones, their studies and travel plans. Daisy has joined them. She’s given herself over to the young clan; not my loyal daughter again until the trip home when she will look out the window, sharing a comfortable silence, exhausted from the close proximity of so many cousins.

Great Grandpa is benignly looking down on the noisy fray from his vantage point inside a picture frame near the fireplace. He is a teenager himself in the photo, dressed in his fighter pilot leather, standing proud and erect next to a plane. Though I have seen this photograph many times over I notice for the first time the hint of wisdom in his look, despite his youth. I see his forehead present within this noisy group, and occasionally his eyes.

Angus, baby Josephine on hip, summons us to eat. His wife Suzie is feeding the younger ones, between sips of cold beer, a calm ship amidst all the activity. She has set up a small table and chairs away from the big furniture and longer limbed people. I am reminded of my dolls house I had as a child; tiny pieces of everyday life miraculously fashioned from wood.

The salad runs out early, people preferring it to the rich looking potato bake on such a hot day. Sturdy and sensible sister-in-law Maeve is arse up rummaging in the fridge. She produces a lettuce, pulls it apart and chops a cucumber, hastily adding them both to the near-empty bowl.

The grandma present, Teresa, announces: ‘I should have left the anchovies out. Kids don’t like anchovies.’

I position myself at the elders’ table, with brothers and sisters-in-law, the grandparents. Someone asks ‘where’s Esther?’ I chastise myself for not commenting on my little sister’s absence until now, for not being able to recall her name earlier.

‘Perhaps she’s escaped to a bedroom to breastfeed the baby?’

My other brother, Gus replies: ‘Baby’s got colic. Said she couldn’t come. Been up all night.’

‘Who hasn’t?’ I hear myself muttering then chastise myself again, for being so uncharitable.

Daisy and I decide to look in on her on the drive home; she’s keen to hold her new six-week-old cousin Rory. I imagine his tiny feet and hands, his soft perfect skin. And how precious he is.

My train of thought is interrupted by movement under the table, something brushes my leg. I jump up. It’s four year old Marcus with a cockatoo feather he found in the driveway. I laugh at the unexpectedness of it; at his delightful little face looking up at me. It starts to furrow when Angus booms:

‘Get out from under there.’

‘It’s ok, I don’t mind,’ I say feebly.

The conversation about Esther resumes at the grown-ups table. ‘Thank goodness that Felix bloke is out of her life now. What a drop-kick.’ There is muttered agreement from the group.

Teresa asks: ‘what happened?’

‘Gambling problem. Esther chucked him out before the baby was born. She couldn’t cope with it anymore. Even nicked her credit card.’

‘Oh dear’ Theresa clucks, ‘a difficult time all round for her then.’

We all sing a fractured off-key version of Happy Birthday to Uncle Gus; he beams in reply. There are tears from a few sugar-high, tired children. It’s our cue to leave.

*

Daisy and I pull into Esther’s driveway, the crunch of tyre on gravel announcing our arrival.

It’s quiet. Good – the baby’s settled, I think to myself.

Prising our bodies from our car seats, sticky with sweat, we emerge from the hot vehicle. I immediately sense that something is wrong.

Our feet crunching the gravel sound ominous in the quiet.

We reach the front door. I call out: ‘Esther darling are you at home?’

Daisy replies: ‘Mum, maybe they are sleeping. Perhaps we should not disturb them.’

‘We’re here now. We may as well check.’

The screen door is unlocked so we let ourselves in. It’s dark inside the house and noticeably cooler than Angus’s place. Esther’s black cat Shadow prances up the hallway; the last thing we see of him is his tail in the shape of a question mark.

We reach the lounge room. Esther is sitting on the couch, head in hands, her hair dishevelled. She has been crying. I crouch down next to her, take her hands gently away from her face.

‘What’s the matter? How’s the baby?’ I try to keep my voice calm, even. My mouth is dry. I feel wretched all of a sudden.

‘Felix took him out two hours ago. Said he wanted to show him to his sister who is here from New Zealand. I said it’s too hot for Rory to leave the house. I have the portable air conditioner set up in his room so that we could get the temperature down. Felix was insistent – as usual. Said Rory is his son too. I said ok but only for an hour as he may need a feed. He hasn’t been drinking much so he could be hungry again now.’

The tears return. She looks hollowed out, exhausted.

‘That bastard’, I hear myself saying. ‘Daisy – you stay here with Esther. Get her some cold water and make her a cup of tea and something to eat. I’m going round to his place. And calling the police first. What’s his address?’

*

Felix has moved in with his brother whose flat is on the ground floor, just two blocks away from Esther. I walk around the perimeter, knocking on doors, windows, calling his name.

A guy in a black t-shirt is leaning over the balcony from his floor above.

‘Think they are at the pub.’

‘Which fucking pub?’ I surprise myself at my anger.

‘Hang on. Don’t need to get shirty. He seems a nice enough guy. Keeps to himself mostly.’

‘Yes, but there is a 6 week old baby with him and I need to find him urgently.’

‘Shit. Ok. It’s three blocks from here. Do you want me to show you? I know how to get there but don’t recall the name or the street.’

I make a split decision based on what I see: someone with a caring tone who wants to help.

‘Ok come on then.’

We race to the pub; I’m driving like a madwoman, grateful that Daisy isn’t with me to witness it, as I am always telling her to slow down when she is behind the wheel.

It’s a nice enough looking pub, not that I spend much time thinking about it. My heart is beating hard in my chest.

We both march into the cool, dark interior that smells of stale beer and damp carpet.

I see Felix at the poker machine straight ahead and make a beeline for him. He gives me one of his hapless smiles when he recognises me. I think briefly to myself: what did she ever see in him?

‘You scared the shit out of Esther. She’s beside herself. Where’s Rory?’

‘Over there’ – he points to an empty pram and my heart stops. My companion lightly touches my arm and I follow his gaze to a group of women I don’t recognise. They are ooh-ing and aah-ing at the fidgety little bundle being passed around.

I snatch Rory from the woman holding him and say with as much authority as I can muster, despite my shaky voice:’ I’m his aunty and I’m taking him home to his mother’.

‘Well, I’m his aunty too.’

We eye each other. The stranger in front of me is about my height, with gentle eyes. I am overwhelmed with pity at this situation, fighting for the rights to such a tiny child. She looks over to Felix at the pokies; he nods his dissent.

We bundle Rory and the pram up. In a moment of clarity, I see myself doing this with Daisy’s pram when we have been visiting people, twenty years ago. Rory is starting to feel warm and his cheeks are red.

Once the pram is in the boot I say: ‘Shit. I don’t have a baby cradle in my car. I’m sorry but you may have to come with me. And hold the baby.’

‘Ok.’ I get a sideways look at my helper. He is actually quite handsome, Spanish origin perhaps? Brown eyes and a neat stubble on his chin.

We tear off to Esther’s place.

There is a police siren behind us. I stop.

Rory is roaring now in that piercing primal way new babies do, telling the world that something is up.

The policewoman is at my window. ‘Mam, what are you doing with a baby in the car and no child restraint? And I registered that you were doing 10k over the speed limit. This is a residential area.’

I realise that I don’t even know the name of the guy sitting next to me, responsibly holding my precious little nephew. He has put his finger into Rory’s mouth, who is fiercely sucking at it.

I feel a long way from my couch and the cold glass of wine I’d been thinking of.

‘Look, we have just rescued this baby from an irresponsible adult. We are returning him to his very distraught mother. My name is Felicity Faulkner. I am his aunty’. I show her my drivers licence.

‘Ok, I’ll escort you.’

We deliver Rory back home accompanied by the police car. There is another one parked on the street when we get to Esther’s.

When we drive into her driveway my passenger gingerly hands the baby to me. ‘I’ll stay out here under the shade. Name’s Claude by the way.’

‘You know mine now. Thanks for your help. I’ll give you a lift home.’

‘That would be good. Don’t suppose you want to join me for a drink? I’ve just had some positive news today. My cancer is all clear. I feel like celebrating. I wouldn’t normally tell such things to a stranger, but after today I feel like it’s ok to share this with you.’

I am taken aback by his candour. ‘I may need to get back to my sister. I’m a bit worried about her.’

‘How about tomorrow night then?’

Laughing at his eagerness I reply: ‘I don’t exactly live nearby.’

‘Let’s meet somewhere that’s halfway. Here’s my card. Call me if you feel like it tomorrow.’ The card states that he is a music teacher.

*

Back inside Esther’s house, the mood feels lighter. She is celebrating also, now that Rory is back with her. We decide to stay the night, seeing as it’s still the weekend. Daisy is pleased. I want to show my sister some support, especially if Felix turns up again.

Esther cautions: ‘You could have a rough night – Rory may wake you.’

I respond: ‘That’s ok, we’ll cope for one night. It’s been too hot to sleep anyway. Let’s order some take-out. Do you have any wine in the fridge? I’ll ask Daisy to walk up to the shop on the corner if not’.

Daisy also buys us both a toothbrush.

*

It’s a rough night on the sofa bed. We keep rolling into the middle together. Though we must have dozed off at some stage, as neither of us can remember Esther walking around the house after midnight, trying to settle Rory. I also can’t get Claude out of my head and decide to call him the next morning. ‘I’m still in the area. We decided to stay over at my sister’s. How about a coffee? Tell me where to meet you.’

I panic when I see the state I’m in, in the bathroom mirror. Stupid! Why did I offer to meet him looking like this? I douse myself in the shower, blow dry my hair for the first time in a long time, thinking to myself he better be worth the effort.

Fortunately, Esther isn’t too precious about sharing her make up. We prepare her some breakfast and I leave her, Daisy and Rory for their walk to the nearby park now that the weather is cooler while I go to meet Claude.

He is sitting by the window in the Blue Bird Cafe, freshly preened himself. He smells of wood-smoke and cloves. I breathe him in. There is a shyness in him today, which renders him more attractive.

We talk for an hour, words flowing freely. About work, families, divorce, travel. Turns out he is a great cook. He wants to make me his signature paella dish next time.

‘Next time?’ I laugh flirtatiously.

When we part outside the cafe he kisses me fully on the lips, squeezes both my hands and says: ‘You are beautiful.’

I grin all the way back to Esther’s house, checking my face in the rear mirror when I stop at the traffic lights. Smiling back is a woman with something to celebrate.

Short Story: Sugar Cane Summer

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At the time of posting this story, it is officially the last day of summer in Australia. I am personally thankful for that! As mentioned in this short story, it’s been a ‘scorcher’.

Dogs seem to find their way into my short stories. I am not a dog owner, but have some canine friends in my life. This story is dedicated to Gina, a very special and much loved dog, who passed away recently.

*

Josh and Jake walk along the gravel road to the bus stop, kicking stones on the way. They’re clammy already; it’s going to be a scorcher. Passing casuarina trees and letterboxes, Josh rubs his stubbly chin, thinks I’ll have to start shaving soon.

He is going over the conversation he heard from the kitchen last night, to do with money and the drought; his parents’ voices strained behind the closed door. He was in the adjoining lounge room, trying to do his homework; his bedroom is too stifling to work in at this time of year.

There’s something on the road ahead of the boys, just after they cross the bridge over the creek. Coming closer, they see an open school backpack, its contents spilled onto the gravel. The harsh staccato from the cicadas surrounds them.

An audible rustle in the sugar cane nearby distracts them both. Josh quickly stuffs everything back in to the backpack, then hoists it onto his free shoulder in one swift movement. Without speaking, they look at each other then move forward into the cane field, stopping to climb through the barbed wire fence. They remove their backpacks to fit through the gap. Josh thinks to himself Mum will kill me if she knows we’ve gone in here. She’s always warning us about snakes.

The sound moves away from them as soon as they enter the foliage. They follow its zig-zagging path through the shoulder high cane. The boys begin to feel the weight of the morning sun on their heads now, each wishing they’d brought a hat.

After some time marching through the vegetation, Josh stops abruptly, looks around.

‘What?’ Says Jake.

‘I don’t know where we are. We are a long way from the road now.’

Their eyes don’t meet. Panic has joined them.

Josh pulls a water bottle from his backpack and takes a swig, then wipes his brow. Just like Dad, thinks Jake. The thought of George his strong father brings a lump to his throat. He pushes the image away, but it is immediately replaced by his mum, Julie, with her soft, cool skin and smell of honeysuckle.

‘I think we’re lost.’

‘What should we do now?’ Jake looks to his brother.

Josh clears his throat.

‘Let’s call Dad. He’ll be less worried than Mum. But either way we’ll cop a punishment for this. We’re late for school, for starters.’

Josh pulls his cell phone out of his backpack pocket.

‘Shit. Phone’s dead. I forgot to recharge it last night.’

Jake starts to scratch his scalp, a nervous tic that Josh recognises.

Putting his arm around his younger brother’s shoulder Josh says: ‘It’s ok buddy, we’ll get out. I promise. Let’s find some shade. Here’ – he tosses him a muesli bar. ‘And have some water.’

The boys walk a little bit further until they reach a fire trail. Here they sit under the canopy of cane so they are in complete shade and can escape the sun’s glare while they gather their thoughts. They nod off, the cicadas’ shrill singing them to sleep.

‘And what have we here?’

There is a boot within inches of Josh’s face. And a machete knife pointing downwards at the end of a muscly arm.

He gets to his feet, dazed in the groggy mid-morning heat.

Shielding his eyes, he tries to get a glimpse of the hulking figure where the voice is coming from; frantically looks around for Jake.

‘What the…’

Jake is shaking his shoulders.

‘You must have been dreaming. You were yelling.’

The sun is way overhead now. The boys’ faces are close; Josh can feel Jake’s hot breath on his sweaty cheek.

‘Hey, remember that cane farmer Mum and Dad told us to stay away from; you know, the guy with the bad temper who has had trouble with his crop this year?’

Jake looks around. ‘Yeah, I think so. So what?’

‘I just dreamt about him. I think we may be on his land.’

There is movement very close by.

They jump up together.

A dog emerges from the cane.

Josh notices its ears are bleeding, says: ‘It must have got caught in the barbed wire fence.’

Jake coaxes it to them, but it keeps its distance.

He asks: ‘Shall we give it some water?’

‘Yeah, but not much. We’ve still gotta get out of here. Don’t know how long that’s going to take.’

Jake makes a cup with his hand and rests it on the ground, gently pours a little water into it. The dog makes a beeline for him, starts lapping the water.

Jake: ‘His tongue is tickling my hand!’

Josh: ‘Come on, we need to make a move.’

‘Can the dog come with us?’

‘No.’

Much to Jake’s delight, the dog follows them anyway.

They reach a clearing.

Josh: ‘I know where we are now, we’re near the creek. I was here two weekends ago with Sam and Martin, remember ? We had torches, built a fire. It was spooky but a lot of fun.’

‘Yeah, and I wasn’t allowed to come with you.’

‘We followed the creek to get here that night, you know the one we cross every day to get to the bus stop,’ says Josh.

Jake has a sudden urge to be back in his bed, to rewind the day. Even to be on the school bus. For things to be normal.

They follow a narrow path down to the creek, the dog padding close behind them. On the opposite bank a girl in the same school colours is sitting in the shade.

They both stop side by side and take in this apparition. As if on cue, the dog stops too, it’s big panting tongue marking time.

Josh waves to her, yells out: ‘Hi. Don’t be scared. We were lost.’

The boys and the dog wade into the water towards her, the unexpected cold trickle of the creek a welcome relief through their socks. Mum will kill us about this too thinks Josh, too late.

The girl yells out ‘My name’s Ruby. I think I have sprained my ankle. It really hurts. That’s my backpack on your shoulder.’

She lowers her head. ‘I guess I’m pretty freaked out by all this nature… I heard something and panicked and ran. I’ve just moved here from the city.’

Josh asks ‘Don’t suppose you have a phone on you? I need to ring my Dad.’

She produces one from her pocket.

Josh: ‘Shit I don’t know Dad’s number. It’s always in my phone so I’ve never memorised it.’

‘Here give it to me.’ Jake punches the numbers into the phone then hands it back to his brother.

‘Dad it’s Josh. Yes I thought the school may have rung by now. We’re ok. Yes I know we’re grounded. We have an injured dog and girl with us.’

Jake is close to Josh’s elbow, trying to eavesdrop, but the percussive shrill of the cicadas blocks the rest of the conversation.

*

The boys don’t get grounded. Instead they receive a bravery award at school assembly the following week for rescuing Ruby.

Josh also starts to spend more time at Ruby’s than at home. Which is fine with Jake, now that he’s allowed to keep the dog. He calls him Rusty, which Josh thinks this is a silly choice, considering the dog is black.

Short Story: Under the Bridge

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This short story was first published a few days ago on the 12shortstories website. Below is its second incarnation, with amendments. Thanks to my fellow writers at the  NSW Writers Centre for their constructive feedback, which helped breathed more life into my story. The prompt given for the story was the bridge, the word count 1200 words.

*

Connor stands in the shade under the bridge contemplating his next move. It’s Sunday morning and eerily quiet, too early for the cyclists and joggers. He fingers the rocks that he’d put in his dad Stu’s coat pockets. It’s the only thing that step-mum Coral allowed him to keep after the accident, when Stu didn’t come home. He feels plastic waste bags in the pockets too, left over from walking Rosie on this same stretch of reserve by the river. It was their father and son time, when they talked about everything.

A lump forms in his throat as he thinks of Stu leaving for work, just over two weeks ago now. A day just like any other, Rosie the blue cattle dog following after him, jumping up into the truck’s cabin like she had so many times before.

I should have told him not to take her to work, when she was still recovering from the operation for her bad tooth. It’s all my fault that she died with him.

His thoughts go to the phone call at school the day of the accident. And a woman standing at the classroom door wearing a sorry look. He had never seen her before.

Principal wants to see you.

He remembers feeling shame as the eyes of the entire classroom followed him, navigating his way from the back row of desks by the window; his favourite spot, where he could look out at the sky. Then walking behind the stranger, up the corridor, the smell of floor polish in his nostrils, a smell he hadn’t noticed until then. And her not talking, her skirt making a swishing sound as she padded quickly in front of him.

*

His finger now finds a sharp edge on a rock in his pocket. His hands are clammy. Says to himself: are they heavy enough? Will they do the job? What if someone finds me and I’m not dead yet? When they notice I’m missing will they dredge me up out of the river like a car or a shopping trolley?

He shifts position, sits on his haunches and looks out at the water’s rippling surface, shivering now in the cool autumn morning.

A Sulphur Crested Tern wings down gently on the grass near him. He is obscured by shadow, it lands in the sun, oblivious to his presence. Another one arrives, as graceful and silent as a butterfly, then another. Soon he counts 12 of them. Suddenly, as if on cue, they all look his way.

He catches his breath, is filled with unexpected joy by this visitation, a feeling he hasn’t experienced for a while. And doesn’t move until his legs are screaming; doesn’t want to break the spell. Then he loses his balance and the birds shift slightly, still looking at him in earnest. It is so quiet he can hear himself breathing.

A big clumsy looking dog bounds along and the birds take off in unison. Connor emerges into the sunlight to get warm, sits on the grass and straightens out his legs. The dog ambles straight up to him, tail wagging, enormous tongue panting, pushing him over sideways.

Next thing, Connor is on the ground, the dog licking his face. He tries to push it off, laughing now. The dog sniffs the coat all over, Connor thinking Maybe he can still smell traces of Rosie on it?

A sweet voice pipes:

Samson, come here! Oh my goodness, I hope he’s not frightening you. He’s a bit too friendly!

He looks up from the ground, still wrestling with the dog, shields his eyes to get a better view of where the voice is coming from.

It is a young woman, about his age. She has long wavy red hair, which looks golden where the sunlight catches it. She is beautiful. An apparition.

He rubs his eyes.

Samson is now back on his lead; she helps Connor to his feet.

Are you ok? Both standing opposite each other now, she starts wiping the wet grass from his father’s coat.

He gets a good look at her, guesses at her age – 15, like him – drinks in her perfect limbs, her Wonder Woman T-shirt, the smudge of make-up round her eyes, the full lips.

Embarrassment now starts to overwhelm him – at the rocks in his pockets, the oversized coat. It’s a dreadful brown colour – not one he would choose. But he doesn’t have a coat, and never needed one with deep pockets until today.

My name’s Annabel. Samson is a bit big for me to handle on my own sometimes. I’m on my way to the kiosk near the playground to get a coffee. Let me buy you one as an apology for his misbehaviour. Unless you are in the middle of something.

She slowly looks him up and down. Her blue eyes are soft, gentle. Connor notices that she is slightly cross-eyed.

He pauses, smoothes out his hair that is sticking out at the back from when he woke up, feels a slight panic as he remembers he didn’t clean his teeth this morning. The thought of coffee reminds him of Stu brewing up a thermos to take with him to work. Connor had tried it once, but didn’t really like the bitter taste.

Ok, that would be nice.

He takes off the coat, throws it over his shoulder. A rock falls onto the ground. He kicks it out of the way.

Rock collector are you?

No, I mean, yes. Uh, sometimes.

It’s ok, I’ll stop asking questions. My brother is always telling me I’m too nosey. Says it might piss people off.

Another rock falls out. Annabel laughs, but it is not a mocking laugh. It is full of warmth.

Still facing each other near the riverbank, Connor says can you wait here a minute? I just need to do something.

I guess that’s up to Samson! He’s a bit tired now, from chasing birds and people, which was getting a tad embarrassing. He’s so inquisitive! I’ll meet you at the kiosk. Need to find him some water.

Sure.

He wants to tell her how much he misses walking Rosie, how he too used to get embarrassed when she started sniffing other dogs’ behinds, or the crotches of strangers, but he couldn’t. Not yet.

He fights off a sudden confused impulse to hold her, to cry for his dad, for his dog, for the injustice of it, for his loneliness.

Connor walks down to the water’s edge. He extracts each remaining rock from the coat pockets. One by one, he tosses them as far as he can, imagining they will reach the opposite bank of the river.

Now that he is alone again a sudden exhaustion seeps in. He sits on the ground and shuts his eyes, the sun on his face. His hands touch the fresh grass, he feels the earth warming beneath him, warming his heart, his blood; takes a few deep breaths.

After a moment, he gets up and brushes himself down – for the second time this morning – and throws the coat over his shoulder again. Then walks up to the kiosk to join Annabel and Samson.